Senate Oversight Hearings on the Providence Schools Takeover

As a Senator-Elect, I have to wait a little longer before I officially can take office, but I can begin to inform you about what I see happening in the Rhode Island Senate, and Wednesday night’s hearing of the Senate Oversight Committee, in which it reviewed the State’s takeover of the Providence Public Schools, offers an excellent place to start.

Earlier this year, the Oversight Committee held its first hearing on this subject, following a scandal in which a recently hired administrator was arrested for asking children to remove their shoes and socks and “popping their toes.” It was revealed that the Turnaround Superintendent (whom the Commissioner hired) was aware that this administrator had committed the same offense in his previous job in Florida, but had hired him anyway. The Turnaround Superintendent then resigned in disgrace. The Commissioner eventually admitted that State had made a serious mistake, placing the well-being of children at risk. The hearing revealed that there was no oversight o senior hiring decisions, a change from past practice when the Providence School Board vetted these decisions, a procedure that could have prevented the scandal from happening.

In the second hearing, the Oversight Committee reviewed other problems that have arisen in the takeover, including the large number of substitute teachers assigned to classrooms since the opening of school and the lack of clarity and priorities in the State’s Turnaround Plan, The Oversight Committee also questioned the Chair of the State’s Council on Elementary and Secondary Education, which is the State’s equivalent of a local school board. A local school school board (such as the Providence School Board prior to the takeover) has the responsibility to oversee the operations of the district, approve key personnel decisions, and ask questions of the superintendent to ensure that overall policy goals are being met. This in fact is the structure anticipated by the Crowley Act, which provided the authority for the takeover. At the hearing, however, the Chair of the Council on Elementary and Secondary Education stated that the Council delegated this authority to the Commissioner of Education (who could not attend due to a previous commitment). By failing to perform its oversight responsibility, the Council lost its chance to prevent the errors that have harmed the education of Providence’s children to date, while increasing the risk of more harm in the future. I believe that these answers are unsatisfactory, and if the Council on Elementary and Secondary Education and the Commissioner cannot develop a more accountable structure going forward, then I will advocate for legislation that mandates them to do so. This type of legislation is a blunt instrument; therefore, it would be much better if the Commissioner and the Council cleaned up their house on their own.

There also was an element of political theater at the hearing, as the audience (consisting largely of teachers) cheered and jeered during the proceedings, reminding me of disruptions that occurred during my days on the Providence School Board. While it is important for the public to know what their government is doing, I believe that these theatrics do not contribute positively to a thoughtful discussion about what is best for our children.

For these reasons, I believe the Oversight Committee hearing Wednesday night was essential, because the Department of Education and the Council on Elementary and Secondary Education are not properly minding the store; however, it would be much better for the children of Providence if these officials improved their performance so that our children’s education can be developed in a more thoughtful and systematic way than is possible from the conduct of legislative oversight hearings.